MEDIA ADVISORY: Macedonia War Gets the Kosovo Treatment– In Reverse

At the outset of NATO’s Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999, FAIR urged journalists not to oversimplify the conflict. At the time, U.S. coverage took a propagandistic tone– blaming a long-standing, multi-faceted conflict almost entirely on the Serbs, or even solely on one man, Slobodan Milosevic. FAIR pointed to the region’s complex history of ethnic confrontation, including the chronic turmoil of the 1980s, when it was the Albanian majority, then enjoying broad political autonomy, that was accused of discrimination and abuses aimed at driving out the Slavic minority.

At the outset of NATO’s Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999, FAIR urged journalists not to oversimplify the conflict. At the time, U.S. coverage took a propagandistic tone– blaming a long-standing, multi-faceted conflict almost entirely on the Serbs, or even solely on one man, Slobodan Milosevic. FAIR pointed to the region’s complex history of ethnic confrontation, including the chronic turmoil of the 1980s, when it was the Albanian majority, then enjoying broad political autonomy, that was accused of discrimination and abuses aimed at driving out the Slavic minority.

In the jingoistic atmosphere of the NATO war against Yugoslavia, much of the media portrayed the conflict as little more than a racial pogrom orchestrated by the Serbs for the simple purpose of satisfying their own consuming hatreds. The fact that Serbian atrocities were taking place in the context of a full-scale armed Albanian guerrilla insurgency was often strangely missing.

Now an almost identical ethnic clash has erupted in neighboring Macedonia, but the press’s coverage is almost a reverse mirror image of its Kosovo reporting. In each case, reporters and pundits have deferred to U.S. officials’ view of the situation: While the war in Kosovo was blamed on the Serbian authorities (rather than the Albanian guerrillas), blame for today’s clashes in Macedonia is placed mostly on the shoulders of the Albanian insurgents rather than the pro-NATO government. Whereas in Kosovo, Serbian repression and human rights abuses were the main focus of attention, today Macedonia’s repression of Albanians is being downplayed.

In October 1997, when the Kosovo Liberation Army first began shooting at Serbian police and civilian officials, New York Times editorialists (10/23/97) blamed the Serbs. They wrote that the disturbances proved “the adage that those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent ones inevitable.” Since 1989, the editorial explained, Albanians had been peacefully campaigning for a restoration of Kosovo’s political autonomy, but “recently some Albanians, frustrated that politics is getting them nowhere, have turned to attacks” on the Serbian government.

The editorial condemned the Serbs’ response as “indiscriminate repression”– though by that point, very early in the conflict, Serbia’s heavy-handed police maneuvers had caused few civilian deaths– and called on Washington to “increase the pressure on Belgrade” to carry out reforms and allow international monitors. No pressure or demands on the Albanian militants were urged.

Contrast that with a recent Times editorial (3/13/01) on the sudden wave of Albanian guerrilla attacks in Macedonia. Far from accusing the Macedonian government of provoking Albanians’ anger, the editorialists declared that “the West must make clear to this militant [Albanian] fringe that they will not be allowed to set off another Balkan war…. Macedonia itself must summon the political and military strength needed to blunt this challenge…. Responsible Albanian political leaders in Kosovo must now be equally forthright in isolating the armed militants…. If they cannot do so effectively, NATO may have to increase its military pressure on the guerrillas.”

Yet just like the Kosovars, the Albanians of Macedonia have taken up arms after disillusionment with years of what they see as fruitless political dialogue amid constant Slavic police brutality. Kim Mehmeti, a prominent Albanian-language journalist and director of an NGO promoting inter-ethnic cooperation in Skopje, explained this disillusionment in a recent commentary for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (“Futile Dialogue Exposed,” 3/21/01). He wrote that the rebellion is “forcing the country to look itself in the mirror and to realize that inter-ethnic talks over the past 10 years have taken place against a backdrop of police repression of the Albanian community.”

Macedonian abuses against ethnic Albanians have garnered little attention in the U.S. This is in marked contrast to neighboring Kosovo, where Serbian brutality was virtually the only aspect of the province’s political situation that caught the U.S. media’s interest. Yet while Kosovo may have featured more frequent nationalist flare-ups than Macedonia– accompanied by more frequent police repression– human rights organizations and activists like Mehmeti have documented a long and persistent record of ethnic abuses by the Macedonian authorities since the republic’s founding in 1991 that have been all but ignored in the U.S.

For example, in 1992 a group of Albanian intellectuals sought to reopen the Albanian-language teachers’ college that had been closed since a 1986 crackdown. After two years with no response from the Macedonian government, they opened Tetovo University on their own. According to Mehmeti, “While ‘democratic dialogue’ continued over the future of the institution, police were dispatched to forcibly shut down the university. This dialogue,” he noted bitterly, “ended in the death of one Albanian [and] the detention of some of the university’s organizers…. The Macedonian state has yet to recognize the institution.”

In 1997, police intervened in the Albanian village of Gostivar to remove an Albanian flag from a municipal building. According to Human Rights Watch, “at least two hundred people were injured…. The police shot dead two men and beat a third to death.” Gostivar’s mayor was arrested and charged with “organizing an armed resistance.” Police “continued to detain, interrogate, and abuse ethnic Albanians” for weeks, including several Albanian political activists who were “beaten and then released without any formal charges having been made against them.” HRW added that the police contingent included “special forces trained by the United States.”

In January 2000, a wave of police repression targeted the Albanian village of Aracinovo after the murder of three Macedonian police officers there. According to Amnesty International, “dozens of people– all of them ethnic Albanian–…were tortured, beaten, or otherwise ill-treated…. Many men were held incommunicado for up to 11 days…. One man had his jaw broken, reportedly with a rifle butt,” and there were “strong indications” that one man who died in custody “may have been extrajudicially executed.”

International monitors recently reported the killing of a 16-year-old ethnic Albanian boy returning home to tend to his sheep, as well as the “arrest and beating of scores of ethnic Albanian civilians, and the vandalizing of dozens of houses” (London Guardian, 4/10/01). In an ominous move reminiscent of the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo, dozens of Albanian teachers, lawyers and other community leaders have recently been rounded up and arrested by Macedonian authorities on vague charges of “terrorism” (“Arrests Panic Albanians,” IWPR, 4/5/01).

These incidents received virtually no coverage in the U.S. media, and reporters writing about the current rebellion have largely tiptoed around the subject. In a piece about the mobilization for war among ethnic Albanian expatriates in the U.S., the New York Times’ Chris Hedges (3/19/01) tersely noted that Albanians in Macedonia “complain of discrimination and harassment from Macedonia’s Slav majority.”

Yet during the Kosovo war, Hedges spoke passionately about pre-war abuses in Serb-ruled Kosovo, calling it “a phenomenally repressive and brutal government,” and argued that “the Serbs forfeited their right to rule Kosovo by that kind of behavior” (NPR’s Talk of the Nation, 6/7/99).

What explains the media’s reluctance to condemn abuses in Macedonia as forcefully as they did the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo? As usual, reporters and editors seem to be taking their cues from U.S. policymakers. In the Kosovo conflict, secretary of state Madeleine Albright and her aides were determined to paint the Yugoslav leadership as the main culprit behind the war in order to prepare the ground for NATO intervention on “humanitarian” grounds. “Our first priority,” one of Albright’s top deputies has written, “was to unite the Europeans behind air strikes by clearly defining the aggressor and the victim” (James Rubin, Financial Times, 9/30/00). At every opportunity, these officials worked to draw attention to Serbian abuses and were reticent about KLA provocations.

By contrast, Macedonia is viewed by U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum as a loyal regional partner of NATO and a bulwark against instability. Far from hoping to launch “humanitarian” airstrikes against the country, U.S. and European officials have acted to shore up the shaky Macedonian government. “Instead of criticizing human rights violations,” Human Rights Watch has written, “the international community has rewarded the Macedonian government for being a ‘factor of stability’ in the region.”

But journalists should not let the calculations of policy planners influence their coverage of human rights issues in the Balkans. Violence on both sides must be reported, and the grievances of each side examined. Just as the media were irresponsible in framing the Kosovo war as a simple story of Serbian violence against Albanians, they should not play down the very real abuses being committed against Albanians by the pro-NATO government of Macedonia.

To view FAIR’s Yugoslavia coverage, see: http://www.fair.org/international/yugoslavia.html

Author: FAIR

News Service: Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

URL: http://www.fair.org/international/yugoslavia.html